Tag Archives: historical fiction

Book Diva Review: Skeletons at the Feast

Skeletons at the Feast“, by Chris Bohjalian is based on a Prussian diary, and is an intense novel, filled with historical fact, within the pages of fiction. It is a poignant, harsh, realistic, descriptive, and an inspirational novel, depicting the last year of World War II, as seen from varying unique perspectives of those who are trying to flee the Germans, and also flee the Russians, and whose lives come to relate on some level. It isn’t your typical World War II novel, strictly filled with atrocities of the Holocaust, but a book that focuses on Jews, on German citizens and Prussian refugees, and how they try to survive before the Russians take over, and how the war affected them.

The characters appear as different as night and day, yet they have the same goal, to escape their current circumstances. We have a German Jew who managed to escape deportation to a concentration camp by throwing himself off of the train that was taking deportees there, and is now disguised as an SS officer; a Prussian aristocratic family who is holding a Scottish Prisoner of War (POW), and two women inside a concentration camp who are witnessing horrific atrocities. The various characters eventually blend together in their transitions and journeys to avoid the Russians and/or Germans, and no matter how minute, they do manage to relate to each other, as each one is a piece of the whole in the weaving of the tapestry.

Anna is one of the main characters, and she falls in love with the Scottish POW. We see how she begins to view things, slowly, in new perspectives, and her image of Hitler changes, and we see how Callum, the Scottish POW views the war from an allied view point, and from that of a POW. Anna’s mother admires Hitler immensely, meanwhile her father and two brothers, are ordered into the German Army. Bohjalian manages to bring insight to mother and daughter, as they begin to grasp the intensity and reality of what is happening, as they cross paths with labor camp victims, as their expectations and visions are diminished with realizations they don’t want to face. There is Uri the Jew, trying to survive within the confines of Nazi Germany, yet he manages to help, and save, some Germans along the way.

Lives intertwine, compassion illuminates within the diversity and confines of war, and some of the characters are left wondering how they believed what they did, how could they not see what was happening, why didn’t they see the realities? So many questions are asked, but there is no clear answer, and they feel the burden of guilt begin to weigh on them. What is right, what is wrong, the lines are blurred.

Denial played a big role during World War II, and many could not fathom and believe all that they were hearing, or they were in denial and didn’t want to comprehend that the Nazis could be committing all of the murders, atrocities and exterminations that the radio news and grapevine stories stated were occurring. Their Germany was civilized and filled with arts and culture, their Germany would never stoop to the tactics they were hearing about. Their Germany was about to fall, and they slowly began to understand the severity of the situation.

I don’t want to go into the depth of the story line , as I feel you need to read “Skeletons at the Feast” for yourself in order to understand the intensity of the situation thrust upon the characters. They were the defeated, the vanquished, striving for survival, unable to handle their circumstance in an organized manner, as they fled westward.

Bohjalian has a deep sense of time and place, and an strong insight into the historical events that took place during World War II. From the atrocities of the Holocaust, to the Russian occupation about to unfold, he brings us a story of people on the edge of life, people fleeing, fleeing in fear, frenzied, in denial, not able to grasp the complexities of their circumstances, people similar to those I read about in Irene Nemirovsky’s masterpiece of a novel, “Suite Francaise“, French people in a panic, not knowing who to trust, where to turn, where to run, how to act, how to flee. Bohjalian manages to encapsulate all of that and so much more into his masterful writing.

Bohjalian has brought us a novel on a grand historical scale, in “Skeletons at the Feast“. He is brilliant with his word visuals, and our senses are heightened throughout each page. The novel is riveting, intriguing, compelling, brutal and harsh, yet there are the moments of love, humanity and inspiration, and the moments of clarity, within the disbelief, for the characters. There were times when certain things were beyond their control, and when survival becomes a prime force in their actions. Some might differ with this opinion, and to be sure, I am certain there are those who will disagree. But, for me, the message was extremely clear, and the metaphor was strong and illuminating…how war affects everyone…no matter who they are…and how man’s humanity and kindness can survive under adverse conditions…through all the horrors set before him…and how humankind can react with acts of kindness purely for the sake of helping another, selflessly, no matter their race or religion, and no matter if they give their life up for another. Redemption and illumination, love and war, violence and compassion, time and place, are all a part of the epic tapestry. One must read each line carefully, and take in each word with thoughtfulness, pondering the circumstances in the lives before them on the pages, as the war affects everyone involved. Once a person has done that, they will then begin to understand the depths to which Chris Bohjalian has written a magnificent and historical novel, and an extremely incredible and overwhelming story in “Skeletons at the Feast“. His message is timeless, and could apply to certain circumstances occurring in the world, currently.

This is my second reading of this gripping novel. I read it two years ago, and have just now finished reading it, again, for a book club discussion.

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Book Diva Review: The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank: A Novel

The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank: A Novel, by Ellen Feldman, is an interesting novel of the Holocaust written from a unique perspective. It is a poignant and compelling story line, which includes haunting remnants of the first love between Anne Frank and Peter van Pels. The historical novel kept me captured through the last page.

Feldman details the historical, and little known facts regarding the diary of Anne Frank. She gives the audience a perspective of, “what if”. What if Peter had survived? What would his life have been like if he had survived? The flow of the story shows how the boy, Peter, grew into an adult. Feldman is extremely brilliant and descriptive in detailing his journey from child to man. There are emotional illuminations, expanding on how he developed into a man who came to hate himself, through his own guilt, denial, assimilation, new identity, and fear.

The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank leaves one to wonder whether promises made as a teenager should be kept as we grow and mature. The author analyzes that factor and how it plays into Peter’s life. The analogies in the novel are extremely compelling, the fear often causing a Holocaust of Self, so to speak.

Peter’s attempt to forget his past, and start anew after emigrating to America, only dig him deeper into the roots he tries to blot out. He marries, has children, yet he vividly cultivates memories of his past through flashbacks, and entwines them in his mind. Some memories are real and ome are imagined. All are after-effects of the Holocaust. We watch him deteriorate before our eyes, and can envision his actions through Feldman’s masterful word imagery…such as when he discovers Anne Frank’s Diary has been published.

The events that follow that discovery are a study on the fear Holocaust victims carried with them…hiding, moving, whispering, running. The book became his stepping stone backwards, forwards, and backwards again into fear and loathing.

I was intrigued by the information contained in this amazing historical novel. There are scenarios regarding the events leading to the lawsuit filed against Otto Frank, disputing some of the facts that were permitted to be given creative license in the play and film.

I recommend The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank. The effort put forth by the Ellen Feldman is one that you will not soon forget. Her writing is brilliant, cutting to the core of emotions and logic. The book is infused with incredible word-paintings, and historical relevancy, leaving the reader with much to ponder.

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Book Diva Review – Orphan Train

orphantrain Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline was quite the historical novel. I had never heard of the term “orphan train” (and I have a few decades behind me), and found out through reading the novel that it was a factual event in American history.

According to Wikipedia: “The Orphan Train Movement was a welfare program that transported children from crowded cities of the United States, such as New York City and Boston, to willing foster homes across the country. The orphan trains ran between 1853 and 1929, relocating an estimated 250,000 orphaned, abandoned, or homeless children. At the time the orphan train movement began, reformers estimated that 30,000 vagrant children were living on the streets of New York City.”

I was quite shocked to realize that not only was the novel based on actual incidents, but also shocked at the extent of the movement.

The novel has two main characters, 17-year old Molly Ayer and 91-year old Vivian Daly. Molly is in the foster care system, living with a family that is torn regarding her. Her foster father likes her, her foster mother can’t tolerate her, she is in it for the monthly income they get for caring for Molly. They come together under unusual circumstances. Molly is fulfilling community service to keep her out of juvenile hall by helping Vivian clean out her attic of decades of boxes and collected items.

When Molly first encounters Vivian, she is an obnoxious teenager, and has to hold her tongue in check in order to remain somewhat civil towards Vivian. Vivian feels a sense of an underlying anger within Molly’s soul. During Molly’s time helping Vivian, she begins to soften her attitude due to the stories that Vivian relays to her, regarding her life during her childhood. Molly has her own stories to tell, and tell them to Vivian, she does.

Through the two of them opening boxes, looking over mementos, clothes and other items, they become emotionally attached to each other. With each item that is uncovered there is one that Vivian reflects upon, and the story is relayed to Molly. It seems the two of them are more alike than either of the imagined.

Molly, begins to see the world differently, with a more realistic viewpoint, and with a deeper understanding of who she is in the scheme of things.

I felt the characters were extremely realized, and were believable. I was fascinated, and also saddened, by the events regarding the orphan train. Many of the children were farmed out, literally, to live on farms where they were mistreated and used for labor purposes. It was an eye-opener, and after I finished reading it, I began to wonder how I had never heard of it. The movement began in New York City, run by Catholic Charities. I don’t remember it being taught in school, and I was schooled on Long Island, New York.

The story is written with sensitivity, but also with truth, blended together in a brilliant story line. Youth and aging co-exist in a lovely story, and one that could have occurred, as far as Molly and Vivian’s relationship. The writing was vividly detailed, and scenes seemed so realistic, I could visualize them happening.

Christina Baker Kline
certainly did her research, and her writing displays it. I highly recommend Orphan Train to everyone! It was a book that is historically important, even though it is a novel. It is a book that I couldn’t put down until I finished it.


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Avner Gold New Release

If you are a fan of Avner Gold, then you will be delighted to learn that “the long awaited continuation” of his historical novel series “Rauch Ami”, “The Long Road to Freedom“, has been published. As in previous books of the series, “The Long Road to Freedom” is a novel whose journey brings into focus the plight of European Jews during 17th century.

You can read an excerpt of “The Long Road to Freedom“, here. It is the “immediate sequel to “The Marrano Prince“, which was the eighth book in the “Rauch Ami” series.

The table of contents to “The Long Road to Freedom“” can be seen here.

The new release has been a long time in coming, and is an exciting event.

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Fugitive Pieces, by Anne Michaels

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels is more than a novel based on the Holocaust, it is a poetically-rendered geological metaphor for the power of loss and love, memory and place. Human history is woven within the bogs and peat of the past and present, as both are intertwined within the beautifully written stories.

Yes, stories. Fugitive Pieces has two narrators…one for the first two-thirds of the book, one for the last third. The transition from one narrator (Jakob) to the next (Ben) might seem awkward for some, but I found it to be a brilliant method of bringing two men from two different generations together within the whole of the novel. The layers of their lives read like an archaeological dig, through the muck and mire of the Holocaust.

Our first narrator, Jakob, witnessed the horror of war at a young age, listening from within a cupboard, as his parents were being murdered and his sister being taken away by the Nazis. “The burst door.  Wood ripped from hinges, cracking like ice under the shouts.  Noises never heard before, torn from my father’s mouth.  Then silence.“  In order to survive, he becomes a fugitive of sorts, and he hides himself in the bogs and peat of the forest, burying himself underground, burying pieces of his past with him. He is like an organism, living for a day here, a day there within the bog, surviving as an organism or parasite, living off of the peat. Along comes Athos, a Greek geologist, who finds Jakob barely able to breathe, and brings Jakob to live with him in Greece. Athos is like a father to Jakob, and raises him like he is his own son.

Yet, all the fatherly affection and love can’t bring Jakob peace from the emotional past he is fleeing. He is like a piece of wood loosened from a desk, separated from the entirety. He dreams of his sister, Bella, in order to survive. He must have some hope, and she is his inspiration. Jakob physically matures into a young man. He becomes a poet, a writer, a translator, trying to find his way in a world of loss and sadness. He is stuck in that layer of time that has yet to be dug out.

Meanwhile, Ben looks to Jakob as a mentor. He too is a survivor. A survivor of his parents (Holocaust Survivors) and their daily nightmares, fears and eccentricities.

Michaels writes with flair and frankness, beauty and poignancy, and weaves the novel with brilliance.  Her naming each chapter is a definite foreshadowing of events and illuminations to follow.  I find her title to the book to be very revealing, if taken literally.  The transitory factor is ephemral, as parts of the whole are often short-lived, and characters, like Bella,  Jakob and Ben are fugacious and unable to blossom to their full potential. Jakob is much like an organism in the geological scheme of things, in the sense he can’t let go of the past. Ben is in the same emotional situation within his family unit. Both of them have trouble with relationships, each relationship a small piece of the stepping stone to fulfillment and contentment.
Fugitive Pieces is an important story, not for historical fact, not for Holocaust history, but for its layers of humanity, humaneness, and the bogs of emotional pain and dust that are eventually swept away through time and love.

~~Book Diva

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